Learning how to play poker is actually quite simple – it just takes some practice and people watching skills. Poker is a card game, like blackjack and baccarat, and does not involve dice. There are many variations of poker, which can become confusing, but we will focus on 5-card draw for the majority of this discussion.
First, you need to know the basic poker hands and their rankings. When you are learning how to play poker, keep in mind that aces are always high and twos are always low. All the suits are equal in value.
To begin, each player is dealt five cards. To win you either need to have the highest hand – or you need to bluff everyone else out of the game (more on this later). Hands are ranked as follows, starting with the highest:
- Royal Flush: Contains 10, Jack, Queen, King, and Ace of the same suit – very rare.
- Straight Flush: Each card in your hand is the same suit and in numerical order.
- Four of a Kind: You have four cards of the same number and one other card.
- Full House: Contains three of a kind and one pair.
- Flush: Contains five cards of the same suite – the numbers are irrelevant.
- Straight: Five cards in numerical order – suits do not matter.
- Three of a Kind: Three cards of the same number and two other cards that are not a pair.
- Two Pair: Two sets of pairs and one irrelevant card.
- One Pair: Two cards of the same number and three random cards.
- High Card: If no one has any of the above hands, then the player holding the highest card wins.
Now that you know the hands that are used to play poker, you need to know some poker rules. There will be a limit on how much you can bet depending on which table you choose at the casino.
The first poker rule states that every player must put in an ante in the pot – or a set amount of money to start. This means that no one plays for free and that there is always something to win. The dealer then deals every player five cards facedown. The remainder of the deck is placed facedown in a stack on the poker tabletop.
Each player then looks at his or her cards. The first player starts (usually the player to the dealer’s left) and then continues on to that person’s left each consecutive round. In the first round of betting you have five options: open, check, see, raise, or fold.
To open means to start the betting. If no one before you has opened the pot, then you can check. If you say, “check” this means that you are staying in the game, but are not adding to the pot. Darrin Gleeman, one of our contributors, advises, “Even if you have a bad hand, you should check if no one else has made a bet – you’ve got nothing to lose.”
If someone has already opened betting when your turn comes around, you have the option of “seeing”. Seeing means that you are meeting the prior bet. Or you can raise the bet, which means that in addition to meeting the prior bet you are adding more money to the pot. Now everyone else must put in that much extra money to stay in the round. Lastly, you can fold. Folding is essentially removing yourself from the game. To fold, you place your cards facedown on the table and announce your intention to fold. You lose any money you have already put in the pot.
Once everyone is even after the first round of betting, any player that has not folded can trade in up to three cards for new ones. You still end up with five cards and all transactions are completed facedown.
Now a new round of betting begins with the same rules as the first round of betting. Once everyone has either folded or met the pot requirements, all players that are still in the game turn their cards face up. The player with the best hand wins. If everyone folds before this point, the last person standing – the one who didn’t fold – gets the pot, but does not have to show his or her hand to the table. “It is best to never show your cards, whether you are bluffing or have a good hand, this keeps the other players guessing,” comments Darrin Gleeman.
Poker Strategy: You Gotta Know When to Hold’em, Know When to Fold’em
As you can see, the rules of poker are pretty simple, but you should have a strategy as you play poker – if you want to win that is. Folding is a good option if you have a weak hand and do not want to bluff. Remember: the more people in the game, the better your hand will probably have to be to win. Once you are down to two or three people, you can often win with a lower hand.
When you have a great hand of cards, you definitely want to stay in the hand, but your strategy is to hide the fact that you have a great hand. You want to draw in the rest of the players by making medium-sized bets. If you scare off the rest of the players with a big bet in the beginning, they will fold with a small pot left for you to win.
Gleeman advises new players, “Don’t be afraid to fold more often than not – it is fun to stay in and play, but it is even better to win!” Another contributor Anthony Pierpont says, “I used to have trouble folding once I’d already put a significant amount in the pot. But when you know you are going to lose the round – just get out. Why lose an extra few bucks on top of what you already put in?”
While poker is fundamentally about percentages and probability, it is also about reading people. One of your best strategies is to keep a poker face – never let your hand, good or bad, read on your face. And you should watch other players – can you start to tell when they have a good or bad hand or are bluffing?
At the Poker Table
When you sit down at a poker table, top of your list are the rules and strategy, but you also need to know the lingo before you start. With today’s enthusiasm for poker tournaments, you have probably heard most of these terms before.
Bluff: Bluffing is when you, or another player, pretends to have a better hand than you really have. You can do this by betting higher than you would normally with the cards you are holding. The goal is to scare other players out of the game or from the poker table and therefore take the pot when everyone folds. To do this, you have to bet high enough to actually scare them, but low enough that you won’t loose your shirt if someone calls your bluff.
Aggressive Play: If you play aggressively, then you bet high early in the rounds. This forces other players out of their comfort zones early in the game. An aggressive player usually bets the maximum each time. Aggressive play at a poker table can help you win a lot of cash if you can get a majority of your fellow players to fold each hand, but it can also be a quick way to lose a lot of money if you don’t know what you are doing.
Conservative Play: This is basically the opposite of aggressive play. If you are a conservative layer, you usually bet the minimum each round and fold whenever you have a weak hand. This is a safer way to consistently win money and keep from losing big ata poker table. However, you are also less likely to win big pots. Once other players label you as a conservative player at the poker table, they will fold as soon as you bet more than the minimum. However, Darrin Gleeman says, “As a generally conservative player, it is easy to bluff once or twice every game – even if it is for a smaller pot – because everyone is afraid of what you might have.”
Tell: Whenever you lie, your body has a natural reaction and gives off little clues. If you pay attention while seated around a poker table, you may start to know what other players’ tells are. Tells can be anything, but are often talking too much, talking less, clenching the jaw, sweating, darting eyes, or fidgeting. While you should try to identify other players’ tells, you should also be aware of your own actions.
Poker tournaments have gained immense popularity in the last decade and more so in the last couple of years especially since they are televised on ESPN and approaching national sport status in the United States. Tournament winners can stand to win thousands of dollars and they are regulated making them a better option than back-alley poker games. Plus, you have a goal in mind besides just winning money – you win the prestige of placing in a tournament and becoming a celebrity.
Texas Hold’em Poker
One of the most popular poker variations is Texas Hold’em. You’ve probably seen this played on ESPN either in televised tournaments or on celebrity poker shows. Instead of starting with five cards in your hand, you start with two in your hand and three shared cards. Shared cards are for everyone at the table to use. After each round of betting, a new card is placed face up as part of the shared cards. By the end there are five cards face up and two in your hand. Your hand is made up of the five best cards in both your hand and on the table. Texas Hold’em is a popular version of poker because players have a better idea of what hands other players might have – this also makes the game more complicated for new players in the casino.